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Copyright law gives people the right to control and protect certain things they create.

Imagine yourself in the role of the creator who has produced a movie or written a song. Why should anyone be able to show parts of the movie or use the song without your permission or without paying you a fee? Likewise, if you write, shoot and edit a package about your hometown, you wouldn't want others to use your package without permission or without compensating you for the effort you put into the creation. Similarly, you cannot use someone else's song or parts of a movie or other copyrighted work in your package without permission.

Licensing Fees and Permission

Broadcast news departments often use music in the background of news stories, and they pay for the privilege. Typically, a station pays an annual fee to major music-licensing companies for the privilege of using music in the station's programming. The station purchases the privilege for editors to use music in news stories, and entertainers to sing songs as part of a program, and it covers other incidental uses of music in the station's operation. When a sportscaster edits game highlights to music, the station pays for the rights to use the song. This type of general licensing fee does not allow an advertiser to use a song as a background to a commercial that will be played repeatedly. When music is synchronized to video for repeated use, a license is required. If the station does not pay the annual fee to cover the general use of music, it must make a report to the licensing company each time a song is used in the station's programming and pay an appropriate fee.

Just as video editors and television programmers must compensate the copyright holders for the use of music and video that others have created, others may not use the creations of the television station without appropriate permission. Although the law protects individuals in recording television broadcasts and using them for their own private viewing, the law does not allow an individual to record a television program and use the video for other purposes. To use the example of a photographer's package about her hometown, she could not legally record pictures of the town from a series of newscasts, edit the pictures over an original script and then sell it on DVD. The television station owns the rights to the footage created by its employees for its programs and can choose whether to permit or deny the use of the footage by others. Similarly, the photographer who shoots footage as an employee of the station does not have the right to use the footage for individual profit without the station's permission.

Fair Use

In some instances, individuals and organizations may use copyrighted material without securing permission or paying fees. This opportunity is permitted under fair use provisions of copyright law. Fair use legal provisions allow the use of such a small amount of copyrighted material that its use does not harm the market for the material. For example, if Aretha Franklin sings "Respect" at a local concert, her licensing agents would surely not allow the television station to record the song and play it as a feature on a morning program. Likewise, the station would be violating copyright laws if it turned part of the song into a regular introduction to a specific program without getting permission and paying a fee. On the other hand, if the news department prepares a story on the concert, it may use a few bars of the song as fair use without permission, because the story is considered newsworthy. Such use may also be permitted because seeing the small clip of the performance might cause a viewer to attend an Aretha Franklin performance or buy her records; thus, it may serve a promotional purpose for Franklin. The amount of the song that may be used under fair use would be very small, and it could not be shown repeatedly after the news value of Franklin's appearance had passed.

In other cases, using even a very small amount of a copyrighted work may not be considered fair. One line of a song might not be considered fair use, because one line might be clearly representative of the entire work. Using one line from a short poem might not be fair use, whereas using an entire paragraph from a novel could be fair.

The legal determination of what is fair use depends on several factors, including the effect on the market for the material, the nature of the work and the purpose of the use. If the copyright holder perceives that the use of the material would prevent others from buying the original work, a court might agree. On the other hand, if an English teacher shows a five-minute clip from a movie to a class to illustrate a point about plot devices, the clip is a very small part of the complete work, is not intended to benefit the teacher and will not prevent the movie studio from making a profit on the film. In this case, showing the excerpt is surely a fair use of the copyrighted material.

News reporters, photographers and editors must remain alert to copyright law. As a general guideline, remember that anytime you use work that someone else created, copyright fees may be required. The chances of getting caught and going to court for copyright violation may be slight, and arrangements for compliance with copyright laws can be complex. Even though copyright compliance may take time and trouble, the Golden Rule applies: Comply with copyright requirements for others, because you would want them to do the same for an original work of your creation. If the moral imperative does not persuade you, remember that there is always the chance of being sued.

Libel and privacy issues get lots of attention in media law, because the cases are usually long and involved and the liability may amount to millions of dollars. Copyright fees are routinely paid by broadcast stations, so lawsuits in this area are somewhat unusual. A number of other legal issues are more likely to arise in the daily routine of news personnel; these include denial of access to information and conflict with an order from the court.